Mahanati actor Keerthy Suresh: Playing Savitri changed me as a person
Keerthy Suresh is all set to bring alive the golden era of south Indian cinema once again as she steps into the shoes of Savitri -- the radiant beauty who ruled the hearts decades back. Perhaps the first biopic which has an Indian actress as its subject, Mahanati has been directed by Nag Ashwin. As the film -- Mahanati in Telugu and Nadigaiyar Thilagam in Tamil -- readies for release, fans are still amazed by how similar she looks to the veteran actor in the stills. The adulation is sweet for it comes after months of hard work. In an exclusive interview with Hindustan Times, Keerthy Suresh revealed what it took to play the role of the veteran actor and the road ahead.
In fact, the actor says she refused the offer to play Savitri initially. “It sounded funny then. I wondered if something like this would even happen. That’s when I said no and it took a few meeting with Nag Ashwin to convince me. The narration did the trick, but it made me more nervous. After I said yes, I started to wonder if I could really do it. I wanted to, but how would I?”
However, Nag Ashwin was convinced that Keerthy was the best fit for the part. This gave her the confidence. So then, from wondering if she could, she began to do it. On the first day of Mahanati shoot, she shot a few songs of Savitri that were recreated for the film. “Usually, the first day is relaxed for actors as you do not have much to do. But here, I had to work on songs that originally featured Savitri. The first song that I shot for was Gangam Bomma, titled Vaaraiyo Thozhi in Tamil. Before the shoot, I even had rehearsal to do it convincingly. As we moved forwards, things got tougher and tougher.”
To play Savitri’s role, Keerthy took help from multiple sources. She watched songs starring Savitri, she watched the iconic film Maya Bazaar again and spoke to the actor’s daughter to understand her personal characteristic and style. However, she didn’t watch too many of her films because that scared her. “Watching her perform a role from start to end would make me doubt if I could do the role well so I depended mostly on the clips, her daughter’s ideas about how I could play her and personal experiences that were recounted by people who had met her or worked with her. All of it was important,” Keerthy confessed.
Nag Ashwin had said earlier that Keerthy grew with the film and by the end, there was a spark and power to her performance. Does she agree? “The movie itself grows every day. Even as we dub for our roles, it grows and becomes more. For me it has come to mean more than opportunity. This has turned out to be an emotional journey. Throughout the film, I was in a zone where I had to be Savitri and live her life. I changed as a person. Even after I finished shooting for the film, it was not easy for me to come out of the character,” she explained.
Savitri’s life was led in a different era. When asked how she got used to thinking that it was not 2018 but the 50s, Keerthy replied that the minute things fall into place, everything works out. “Once everything is put together, you feel like you are already there. The sets that were erected, the costumes that I wore, the make-up that was done for me and the stories that I heard made it easy for me to think of everything in vintage terms.”
Keerthy worked on five other projects while doing Mahanati. Initially, she thought this was a mistake as she couldn’t live and breathe her character at a stretch and she had to keep switching characters as she moved from one set to another. However, after a point, she realised this was a blessing. “The advantage was that I got to take a break from being in the shoes of this character. We shot the film in an order and so the lighthearted, fun scenes were shot initially and the emotionally draining part of the film was shot together. So I could take a break from this by playing different parts. While I was depressed at times, this break allowed me some breathing room,” she admitted.
While Keerthy plays Savitri, Dulquer Salmaan plays the role of Gemini Ganesan who is Savitri’s husband and also an accomplished Tamil actor. Speaking about working with Dulquer and how they developed their equation to build chemistry for the film, Keerthy said that it was done organically. “Nagy (Nag Ashwin) would come and explain the scene to us and we would perform. We didn’t do much in terms of preparation. In fact, I did not realise how beautifully the scene or mood of each scene had come out until I saw it while dubbing. Especially, the songs have come out so beautifully and I realised this only after watching the teaser,” she confessed.
As the film nears its release date and the expectations built around it are sky high, Keerthy accepts that there is a lot of pressure and that she is worried about how people would accept her as Savitri. “It’s a huge responsibility and initially, my mind was a clean slate. After going through 120 changes, seeing small elements play big parts, I did not think too much. I also did not know what would go in the teaser. In fact, I also wondered if the shots in teaser would be good. However, after I watched the teaser, I have butterflies in my stomach,” she said.
Now that she has completed work on Mahanati, the actor wants to balance both commercial films and performance-oriented films and feels that she has time to explore different kinds of roles in the future. She also said that she hasn’t signed a new project post Mahanati. The actor will be seen in Tamil films Thalapathy 62 opposite Vijay, and in Saamy 2 opposite Vikram after the biopic.